By Noah Alvarez
And then there were 16.
The dust has now settled and the remaining teams in the World Cup have survived the group stage and advanced to the playoffs. Unlike the group stage, there are no longer ties as it is win-or-go home until we come away with one champion.
Before the tournament had started, everyone had their own set of favorite and sleeper teams to watch out for. But, thanks to some stellar upsets and disappointing performances, the playing field looks a lot different than many expected. In fact, this is arguably the most wide open World Cup in recent memories.
Germany, the heavy favorite, and the defending champion was knocked out after shocking losses to both Mexico and South Korea in the group stage. Senegal looked poised to be a serious threat after two dominant performances, but a loss to Colombia in their final game left them on the short end of the stick in a tiebreaker with Japan.
Despite having some great individual players, Argentina and Portugal did not play great team soccer and limped into the round of 16. While on the other hand, both Croatia and France overperformed during the group stage and have put the other remaining teams on high alert. With the round of 16 set, here are some favorites, sleepers, and top players to watch out for in the upcoming two weeks of action.
Both in the 2014 World Cup and in the Euro 2016, Belgium was considered as a nation with arguably the most potential; well now it is time to live up to that potential. Belgium won Group G with ease after dominating Panama 3-0, defeating Tunisia 5-2 and used a squad of mostly reserves to handle England 1-0.
The attack of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens is one of the best units remaining in the World Cup. Thibaut Courtois is an exceptional goalie who has been in control and Belgium has the depth – as shown by their latest victory – to overcome any injuries that were to occur to their starting 11.
Their first matchup in the round of 16 will be against Japan on Monday, July 2nd, 11 am PT.
Before the tournament began, many fans – including myself – had a feeling Croatia was going to be a sneaky good team and possibly find their way into the round of 16. Then in dominating fashion, the Croatian national team swept their group, which included an impressive 3-0 win over Argentina.
Since new manager Zlatko Dalic arrived, Croatia has been playing better than ever and they possess a formidable attack that is led by midfielder Luka Modric. Modric, along with Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, has been one of the best midfield units in this World Cup. Forwards Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic have played excellent up top as well.
Croatia might be lacking in defense but this team is poised to go make a deep run, thanks to the leadership of Modric and Rakitic. Their first round of 16 matchups will be against Denmark on Sunday, July 1st, at 11 am.
Maybe with the exception of Belgium, France had the easiest time getting through the group stage in Russia. They pummeled Australia 2-1, Peru 1-0 and eventually finished with a 0-0 draw against Denmark in the group finale.
On paper, this France team is stacked and did not even need to bring their A game to the group stage. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris looks to be in top form back in goal while midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante have been playing exceptional. They also have a handful of talented forwards at their disposal and can use any combo of them at any given time.
We will see if France can turn it into high gear in their first matchup against a dangerous Argentina team Saturday, June 30th, at 7 am.
Before the tournament, Brazil was considered a heavy favorite and with Germany now eliminated, many fans have to feel like Brazil is the team to beat. Their roster is stacked through the teeth and is led by superstar forward Neymar.
Their were some doubts about Neymar’s health at the beginning of this tournament and Brazil did get off to a sluggish start with a 1-1 tie against Switzerland. But they rebounded nicely winning back to back matches 2-0 over Costa Rica and Serbia. Midfielders Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho have been lights out this tournament and will need to continue their great play in support of Neymar.
Of course after the embarassing 7-1 loss in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, the spotlight is going to be on the defense to hold their own. They will be tested early and often versus Mexico on Monday, July 2nd, at 7 am.
Everything seemed to be going Mexico’s way in their first two matchups, defeating the defending champions Germany 1-0 and then South Korea 2-1. But all hell broke loose in their final group matchup, in which they lost to Sweden 0-3, and were bailed out thanks to a 2-0 South Korea victory over Germany.
Because of that loss, many have fans will look past Mexico in the round of 16 but if they can recapture the magic they had in the first two games, this is a dangerous team. They are lead by goaltender Guillermo Ochoa, who recorded a shutout against Brazil in 2014 and forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez who is an exceptional play-maker.
The 22-year old forward Hirving “Chucky” Lozano has been special in this tournament and will need to keep it up if the team hopes to make a deep run.
Yes, the team is undersized compared to other rosters but they play with a certain grittiness and share excellent chemistry when on the attack. Facing Brazil in the opening round is a daunting task, but if anyone can pull off the upset, it is El Tri.
After watching their first game in which they played almost 90 minutes of 11-on-10 soccer thanks to an early red card, I would not have predicted them to advance to the round of 16. But Los Cafeteros bounced back strongly with a 3-0 win over Poland and then a 1-0 victory over Senegal, which ultimately won them the group.
Colombia finished the group stage playing some of the best soccer, thanks to players like Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado, and James Rodriguez. However, Rodriguez suffered a minor calf injury in the game against Senegal and his status for the next game is still uncertain. Goalkeeper David Ospina has turned some heads and had some really nice saves during the tournament as well.
Colombia’s defense may be a liability, but if Rodriguez can be healthy and continue to play at a high level, this is a team to be feared. They face off against England on Tuesday, July 3rd, at 11 am.
Sweden is a team, much like Colombia, that is entering the round of 16 with plenty of confidence. After an opening 1-0 win over South Korea, they ended up losing 2-1 on an incredible goal by Germany in the final seconds of the game. They had their best game in their final matchup with Mexico and won by a final score of 3-0, which ultimately won them the group.
Sweden had a really solid defensive game plan against Mexico’s quick counterattacks and that could be a huge x-factor if they can continue to play great as a cohesive unit. Offensively, the charge was led by defender Andreas Granqvist, forward Marcus Berg and forward Ola Toivonen. Sweden possessed the combination of speed and passing ability to put together very good chances multiple times in each of their matches.
And to think they are playing this great without the nation’s superstar in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Because they came out on top of Group F, they were placed on the ‘easier’ side of the round of 16 bracket and could make a deep run. Their first opponent will be Switzerland and they face off Tuesday, July 3rd, at 7 am.